The Corner

Re: Dads and Cads

Jonah:

Lots of stuff there to keep us busy.  First, let me disabuse any readers who might have got the idea that outside school hours I keep my kids chained in the basement with opened cans of dog food.  In just this past not-atypical week:  (1) My daughter’s braces came off, a multi-thousand dollar expenditure, plus two years of relentless nagging to follow the no-gum rules etc., in the interest of her adult appearance. (2) Same daughter participated in an end-of-season ballet recital at Huntington Ballet Academy (years and $$$ again, though not much nagging as she loves to dance), and acquitted herself so well she got an award.  (3) Sunday we attended the Fekula extended-family barbecue, with a cast of thousands, the high point of which was solo recitals by all undeage participants, including my son (piano) and daughter (violin).  Again, they did well–the fruits of countless hours of scheduling and nagging (to practice, I mean) and more money put out in instructors’ fees than I care to think about.  Parenting?  I’m on the job.  If it only makes a difference at the margin, I want to make that difference. 

Now to some of your points–though not all, as Kathryn won’t permit the necessary length.  But I’m sure we can deal with anything I’ve omitted in future exchanges.

—Derb the Progressive, eugenics, and abortion.  No, I’m not a Progressive, being too deeply distrustful of state power, and too little interested in “schemes of political improvement” (see below).  Yes, I have no problem with eugenics, which anyway–whether I have a problem with it or not–is a rapidly growing feature of our society, and will be a really major one by the time my kids have kids.  And yes, I’m fine with abortion.

The strongest political emotion I’m aware of in myself is a love of liberty–”natural liberty,” to place it in David Hackett Fischer’s scheme.  I don’t like being bossed around.  I was always a lousy employee–went through a long gloomy stretch, in fact, of suspecting I was unemployable, like my Dad.  I want the state to leave citizens alone as much as possible.  (But no, I’m not a libertarian.  They are much too cheerful about the place of reason in human affairs–look how they named their magazine!–and much too dismissive of instincts like tribalism and patriotism.)

Woman A gets pregnant, finds that her baby would be born with severe mental and physical impairments, but says: “I don’t care.  It’ll be loved however it comes out.”  Woman B, in the same situation, decides to abort.  A Progressive–at any rate a thorough-going one–would force that first woman to abort, in the general interest.  I call that a denial of liberty.  A right-to-lifer would force the second woman to carry to term.  I call that a denial of liberty too.  The Progressive would accuse me of making society a wee bit worse by letting the first woman give birth.  The right-to-lifer would say that I’m ignoring the rights of the fetus.  The Progressive’s case seems to me unsound (even, if my understanding of genetics is right, biologically unsound).  The right-to-lifers are weighing the theoretical rights of a fetus with the liberty of an actual adult woman to make decisions about her own body and her own future, and to my eyes the balance doesn’t tip, or even budge.

The desire of parents to have healthy children with a decent shot at good life attainments, is very strong.  I don’t see anything wrong with it; and even if I did it would make no difference, as the biotechnology is already upon us, and will be embraced enthusiastically by most parents.  I share your horror of state-organized eugenics, but then, I nurse a horror of state-organized pretty much ANYTHING.  I have no problem at all with “consumer eugenics,” but state-organized eugenics, like, oh, state-organized “homeland security,” would be a disaster.  A total state proscription of abortion would be too.  Liberty!  That’s why I call myself a conservative.  Someone once described me as “paleolibertarian,” but I don’t know enough about these fine poli-sci taxonomies to say if he was right.  I think of myself a a Johnsonian Tory pessimist:  Boswell—”So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement?”  Johnson–”Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.”      

—”But nobody has ever doubted the importance of parents until now.”  Well, in a general sort of way that is of course true.  For your life outcome, it was always better to have a prince as a parent, than a pauper.  That’s not what I’ve been talking about, though.  As a determinant of adult personality, whether your Dad is a prince or a pauper makes little difference; and in a meritocratic society like ours, it even makes little difference to your life outcomes, when other factors are properly contolled for.  That’s what the science tells us. 

That “until now” needs work, too.  I say again, the idea that parenting style makes all the difference is quite new.  It came up with Freud.  Among the educated classes, it started around 1930.  In my own (uneducated) childhood neighborhood in the 1950s, it would have been thought weird.  A family that produced a lot of bad children–there seemed to be one in every street–were reckoned to be “bad in the bone.”  A family that produced all good children were considered lucky, or at very best the parents were said to have given “a good example.”  If a family produced two good kids and one bad one, they were sympathized with for the bad one, not *blamed*, Freudian-style.  To be sure, people quoted the Proverbs 22:6 pretty freely; but the general understanding was that you do your best–keep the kids clean and well fed, make sure they go to school, yell at them or smack them if they misbehave–but if they turned out bad, well, they were “bad in the bone” or else they “fell in with a wrong crowd.”  Genetics and group socialization, see?  This is actually one case where science is confirming folk wisdom.  It’s the recent parenting-style-is-all Freud-Spock scheme that is the aberration.  

And if you go way back, to those long slow millennia in which the human brain evolved, you find–as best we can judge by observing surviving hunter-gatherer peoples–that after age two and a half or three, when they’re weaned and can run around, kids are let loose among other kids, and not bothered about much.  There is very little parenting, in the modern understanding of the word, at all.  It really did take a village.  That, of course, was the state Marx described as “primitive communism.”  We are way beyond that, and any attempt to pretend that the state can replace tribal authority in our big, complex modern societies would be disastrous–as, in fact, modern communism proved, and as Hillary-style “takes a village” socialism would prove all over again.  Some things just don’t “scale up.”  Something, however, is always owed to nature  http://www.answers.com/topic/naturam-expellas-furca-tamen-usque-recurret , and we get into a mess when we forget that, or deny it.  Our brains haven’t changed a lot since the paleolithic, and to ignore that, is to take a wrong turn.

—Science and reason.  Not the same thing.  Reason in the strict sense–deductive chains from general premises to particular conclusions–is only the back half of the science pantomime-horse.  The front half is empiricism:  Gathering facts, observing and classifying and measuring, then inducing general theories.  *Then* you reason from those theories to new particular facts.  Then you check to see if those new facts match appropriate new or past-unexplained observations.  Right to lifers only have the back half of the horse.  They start from assumed premises–generally religious or metaphysical tenets–and reason down to conclusions.  There is no empirical content.  True, Right-to-lifers *use* science to bolster their arguments.  “If a human life is defined by an intact and unique genome, then human life begins at conception…” etc. etc.  They couldn’t say things like that if science hadn’t taught us about the genome.  On the other hand, statements like that are not scientific.  If anything, they are just lexicographical:  in that particular case, a definition of “human life.”  Science has nothing to say about whether abortion is right or wrong.     

—What else?  I hear Kathryn honing her edit scalpel already… but as I said, we can continue piecemeal.  Oh, yeah:  “The interesting difference between us, I suppose, is that you don’t seem to think there’s a lot of importance to these different religions.”  That would be correct.  I don’t.  Furthermore, I have been priding myself on the fact that in this regard, at least, I am thoroughly American.  Foreigners have been remarking for a couple hundred years that in America, it’s important to be religious, but it’s not important which religion you profess.  George Washington said nice things about Judaism; George W. Bush says nice things about Islam.  (As, come to think of it, do I.  Johnson again:  “Why, Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself?”) 

I think that’s enough for now.  Except that I think you come dangerously close to

—(A) Asserting (if I didn’t misunderstand, I think you actually *did* assert it) that there is “good” science, in a moral sense.  No there isn’t.  There’s good politics and bad politics, and bad politics might hire scientists to do bad things–which things, scientists being human, they will sometimes willingly do.  Science itself is ethically neutral, though.  It just tells us how the world is, and how it works.  Whether we bring those truths into policy-making with good intent or bad, and whether (which alas is an independent matter!) the consequences are good or bad, are features of our politics.

—(B)  Following on from that, you come close to saying (and this is impressionistic on my part–feel free to refute vigorously and vituperatively) that there are some things about the world we are better off not knowing.  From there it’s a wee step–one that is invariably taken–to the idea that there are things which, while it might be OK for me and thee to know them, are best kept secret from the Great Unwashed.  There’s rather a lot of this about in conservatism (right here on NRO last week, for example) and I dislike it very, very, very much.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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